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William Plomer PDF Print E-mail

William Charles Franklyn Plomer (1903 - 1973) was a prolific author of biographies, autobiographies, poetry, librettos, prose fiction and non-fiction. Plomer was born in South Africa, and went school at Rugby in England. After returning to South Africa, Plomer worked as a shopkeeper in Zululand for a short period, during which time he wrote his very promising first novel entitled Turbott Wolfe (1925) published when he was in his early twenties. At this time, Plomer became co-editor with Roy Campbell of Voorslag (1926), a literary journal, but left South Africa shortly afterwards for a visit to Japan with Laurens van der Post. Though Plomer's time in South Africa was relatively short, it was an intense and productive seed-time. From the East, Plomer travelled back to England, where he worked for the publishing firm, Jonathan Cape (eventually becoming a director of this company), and concentrated on his literary career. Plomer had the distinction of being the chairman of the English Poetry Society during the last years of his life.


Selected Work

from Turbott Wolfe (1925)

[Note: Aucampstroom may be based on the KwaZulu-Natal town of Eshowe.]

I found myself all at once overwhelmed with a suffocating sensation of universal black darkness. Blackness. I was being sacrificed, a white lamb, to black Africa.
It may have been a disorder of the nerves; it may have been prevision. In consequence I went oftener away to Aucampstroom.
That town lies on a bleak plateau, colder and higher by far than my own low-lying home at Ovuzane. Aucampstroom was an outpost of the voortrekking Dutch: they could penetrate no farther to the north and northeast, being in too close proximity to the borders of Swedish East Africa, foreign territory; and no farther to the east and south-east in the direction of Ovuzane and the greater part of Lembuland, because that was native territory under special protection. It was from the west and the south that the Dutch had come, a few families venturing farther than any. Venturing like Scythians over rocky illimitable wastes, in those days unmeasured, they had come in mighty tented wagons that creaked and groaned, crude magnificent arks, on stupendous wheels, forced up and down the roadless uneven hills by straining teams of titanic oxen.
There were large gross men with flag-like beards, peasant- minds, and patriarchal names and manners; begetters of children. There were large gross women with wooden limbs and loud voices, bearers of children, their harsh heads hidden in prodigious flapping sun-bonnets of sheer black, as wickedly significant as the fell wings of unknown birds of ill omen, in a landscape of clear dusty blue, and in an atmosphere as subtle as time and as vast as eternity.
Children came with them of all ages, babies and brats, quiet and mostly fascinated and bright-eyed (with black bright eyes like darting beetles, as all children have) and emulative (as all children are) of parents so wonderful as to be almost incredible. And young women with love insatiable, proud in their young womanliness; and young men were there, active, with young unshaven beards like bright wire in the sun.
Under the hoods of the wagons were secreted household goods - under every single hood a big black bible, the holiest possession of each single family, massive, four-square, full of bitter biblical wisdom: and its pages turned oftenest by patriarchal thumbs in times of stress. 'Adversity', as is written in each of those bibles, 'teacheth a man to pray; prosperity never.

Aucampstroom owes its existence to these voortrekkers, and especially to their leader, Petrus Aucamp, to whom, as to his followers, guns served for grace, powder for polish, and meat for manners. While Metternich was dying the broad ambitious roads of Aucampstroom were being laid out, intersecting each other to form spacious erven for the homes of the elders; and all the outlying mountains, rough with rocks and smooth with grass, were being apportioned into farms as large as counties. But when I came to Aucampstroom - said Turbott Wolfe - I could not persuade myself that the hopes of its founders had matured. After all the intervening years it was only a dorp with a few thousand inhabitants. The farms had been divided equally, according to the wills of the patriarchs, among their sons and daughters, and re-divided among the children of the third and fourth generations until many of them could no longer scratch a living out of the sour soil, and had migrated to the large distant towns, where they had degenerated, lacking balance, into poor whites. The population of the town itself was now half composed of the descendants of English colonists, and there were also Jews, Greeks, Indians, a great number of 'coloured people', and a location full of Lembus. There was a magistracy; a Dutch Reformed church, a pretentious building; an English church like a shed; a Wesleyan chapel, much bigger; a railway station; and a great deal of backbiting.


1925. Turbott Wolfe. Johannesburg:  A Donker.
1927. Notes for poems. Johannesburg:  A Donker.
1927. I speak of Africa. London:  Hogarth Press. 
1928. The family tree. London:  Hogarth Press.
1929. Paper Houses. London:  Hogarth Press.
1931. Sado. London:  Hogarth Press.
1932. The case is altered. London:  Hogarth Press.
1932. The fivefold screen. London:  Hogarth Press.
1933. The child of Queen Victoria. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1933. Cecil Rhodes. London:  D Appleton and Company.
1934. The invaders. London: Jonathon Cape. 
1936. Visiting the caves. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1936. Ali the Lion. London:  Jonathon Cape.
1938. Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert (1870-1879). London:  Jonathon Cape.
1940. Collected poems. London: Jonathon Cape.
1942. In a Bombed House. W. Plomer. 
1943. Double lives. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1945. The Dorking Thigh, and other satires. London:  Jonathon Cape.
1949. Four Countries. London:  Jonathon Cape.
1952. Museum pieces. London: Jonathon Cape.
1955. A shot in the park. London:  Jonathon Cape.
1955. Borderline Ballads. New York:  Noonday Press. 
1957. Paper Homes. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1958. At home. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1960. A Choice of Ballads. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1966. Taste and remember. London:  Jonathon Cape. 
1975. The autobiography of William Plomer. London:  Jonathon Cape.
1978. Electric Delights (ed. by Rupert Harte-Davis).  London:  Jonathon Cape.

The trading store and environs from Turbott Wolfe today (photographed by Stephen Coan).

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